Podcast

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Straying from the Party Line: The Pros and Cons of the Very High Concept

When you’re just starting out, it’s hard to get noticed, but one way to do it is with a very-high-concept pilot. I’ve said before that it’s good if there’s something bold, weird, and/or never-before-seen about the concept of your spec pilot. “The Good Place” qualifies in spades.

(Of course, the rules are different when you’re trying to get noticed vs. when you’re actually trying to get something on the air. A script like “The Good Place” is actually a very hard sell to a network, and NBC seems to have only reluctantly aired it, because Schur had made them a lot of money and because the script attracted Bell and Danson.)

But this script shows how hard it is to write a very-high-concept pilot that satisfies traditional audience expectations. Let’s look at some of the checklist items it didn’t check:
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
 Well, the execution does, because it’s very funny and the leads are very appealing, so everybody who sees it loves it and recommends it to others.  But the concept is a hard sell.  What was it the Talking Heads said: Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens?   It’s hard to see how the show would work until you see it. 
Does the pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in the premise (rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start next week)?
Not really.  There’s an awful lot of set-up here and Eleanor won’t really start trying to be a better person until next week.
If this is a premise pilot, is the basic premise established by the midpoint, leaving time for a foreshortened typical episode story in the second half?
No.  There’s a lot of set-up and Eleanor won’t really try to start becoming a better person until next week. 
Does the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
Not really.  She doesn’t achieve any goals.   Her accomplishment is to find a co-conspirator
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Not really.  Lots of plot in this episode.
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
No, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before, so its not comfortable to watch.  We don't say, Ah yes, the familiar comforts of this genre!
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
It’s too weird to say.
It simply takes a long time to establish this never-seen-before setting. We spend the entire teaser and first act just learning the rules before we find out anything about our hero. There’s even an orientation video that we and Eleanor have to stop and watch to help us understand. Normally, power points are a bad sign, especially if we don’t care about the hero yet, but in this case, the show gets away with it, because the world is so interesting (and Danson is so appealing).

The downside of this long set-up is that it takes a long time to meet our hero and the real plot driver for the series is not established until the final minutes, leaving no time for a foreshortened example of a typical plot, which viewers crave before they commit to the show. We don’t get to see Chidi helping her yet.

And indeed this show was not a big hit on first airing. It was only when it appeared on Netflix and people could binge the first season that it caught on, to the extent that it has. This wasn’t made by Netflix, it’s still sort of a “Netflix show”, paced more for a binge than for watching week to week, and I think that’s becoming more of the norm, so maybe you can get away with it more now. Or at least Schur can. For a spec premise pilot by an unknown writer, you’d probably still want to have a foreshortened plot taking up the second half, to show that the show will work, which means that your pilot maybe can’t be this super-high-concept.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Ultimate Pilot Story Checklist: The Good Place

Eleanor Shelstrop wakes up in the afterlife and is told by a man named Michael that she has died in a shopping cart accident, but the good news is that she’s gone to “The Good Place”, a heavenly realm reserved for only the best people. Michael shows her to her dream house and her soulmate, Chidi, then leaves them together. Eleanor quickly admits to Chidi that there’s been a mix-up and she’s actually a terrible person. That night they go to a party hosted by their neighbors Tahani and Jianyu, but Eleanor steals shrimp and calls Tahani a giraffe. They awake the next morning to find the realm being attacked by giant shrimp and giraffes. Chidi says that Eleanor’s badness is disrupting this world and she must come clean. Eleanor has another idea: Chidi can teach her how to be a good person so she’ll fit in. He reluctantly agrees.
PART 1: IS THIS A STRONG CONCEPT FOR AN ONGOING SERIES? (17/20)    
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
 Well, the execution does, because it’s very funny and the leads are very appealing, so everybody who sees it loves it and recommends it to others.  But the concept is a hard sell.  What was it the Talking Heads said: Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens?   It’s hard to see how the show would work until you see it. 
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
Very much so: A jaundiced view of heaven though the eyes of a terrible person.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
Very much so: A dead woman and her afterlife-manager and her ethics coach.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
Heaven is annoying.
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
Sort of?  NBC has never put its full weight behind the show, and seems to have made it as a favor to Schur for his other shows.  I think you could safely say this is a show that meets nobody’s “content expectations.”
Even if the setting is unpleasant, is there something about this premise that is inherently appealing? (Something that will make the audience say, “Yes, I will be able to root for some aspect of this situation to recur episode after episode.”)
More so in the second episode, where they learn they can fly, and we get into the “wish fulfillment” aspect of the show. 
Series Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong ongoing series?
Is there one character (or sometimes two, in separate storylines) that the audience will choose to be their primary hero (although these heroes should probably be surrounded by an ensemble that can more than hold their own)?
Eleanor
If this is a TV series, is the hero role strong enough to get an actor to abandon a movie career, come to work in TV for the first time, and sign a five-year contract before shooting the pilot? (And even if not for TV, is the hero role still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
Yes.  Bell had a minor movie career.
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
Once the shrimp and giraffes attack, we realize that it is.
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
Yes, Eleanor has class resentment of Tahani
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
Not really.  It’s not really a strong plot engine, and it would run out by the end of the first season.
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
More cerebral, certainly, but we sense from the pilot that they’ll be kept on their toes physically as well.
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
Yes, she’s trying to save herself from eternal torment.
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
Only slightly: She’ll have a different moral knot to untangle in each episode, and she must solve the mystery of how she ended up there.  (Other mysteries will soon present themselves as well.)
The Pilot: Will this pilot episode be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in the premise (rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start next week)?
Not really.  There’s an awful lot of set-up here and Eleanor won’t really start trying to be a better person until next week.
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
Many!  Giant shrimp and giraffes attack!  Even the color scheme and font feel unique. 
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
Oh my yes.
Is there a “Holy crap!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
Sort of: When we find out she’s a terrible person.
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
How did she end up there?  Is there something sinister going on? A potential romance with Chidi.
Even if this is episodic, is there a major twist or escalation at the end (though sometimes this twist will only be new to, or only revealed to, the audience) that will kick future episodes up a notch?
Eleanor and Chidi enter into their conspiracy.
PART 2: IS THIS A COMPELLING HERO (OR CO-HEROES IN DIFFERENT STORYLINES)? (13/16)
Believe: Do we recognize the hero (or co-heroes) as human?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Sort of: ”Did I have a purse?  No, I’m dead.  Right.  Okay.”  It’s tricky, because they haven’t revealed her true personality yet at this point, but they still have to give us just enough to get us to like her in a kind of generic way before they can get us to like her specifically.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
A perfect person
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
A terrible person
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
I don’t need anybody, the world is a terrible place, live for today
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Cursing, but she can’t curse here, which means the show actually gets away with a lot of cursing: “Fork me”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Selfish
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Guilt you into doing it.  “My soul is in your hands, soulmate, what’s it going to be?”
Care: Do we feel for the hero (or co-heroes)?
Does the hero have a great flaw that is the flip side of his or her great strength?
She’s mean-spirited.
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
Just the opposite, which is why this concept proved to be untenable past 13 episodes.
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
What happens when a rotten person who lives for today faces eternal judgment?
Invest: Can we trust the hero (or co-heroes) to tackle this challenge?
Does the hero have a great strength that is the flip side of his or her great flaw?
 She cuts through the bullshit, both on Earth and in heaven.
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
Well, she was good at her job defrauding old people.  She’ll be pretty good at her job of conning her way into heaven, but we don’t have much sense of that yet in the pilot.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Yes, everybody seems dippy compared to her.
Is the hero curious?
Very much so.  She’s got a big mystery to solve.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Not really.
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
Well, she’s in a unique position, but no, she doesn’t really have any special skills.
PART 3: IS THIS A STRONG ENSEMBLE (BEYOND THE HERO OR CO-HEROES)?  (11/13)
Powerful: Is each member of the ensemble able to hold his or her own?
If this is a network TV series, are there at least two more roles that are strong enough to get TV veterans to sign their own five-year contracts? (And even if not for TV, are the characters still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
Just one: Michael.  The other roles went to totally unknown actors.
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
Yes, they’re all great. 
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Very much so, though we only really get to know the three in the pilot. 
Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
Well, the whole point of heaven is that you get defined by your backstory, but we don’t get much of that in this episode.  We judge people based on how they act here.
Do all of the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others? (Good characters don’t serve good, evil characters don’t serve evil.)
Well that’s what it’s all about, right?  Eleanor certainly does, and later we’ll learn that the others are doing the same.
Do most of the main characters have some form of decision-making power? (And is the characters’ boss or bosses also part of the cast, so that major decisions will not be made by non-regulars?)
The boss is part of the cast, and Eleanor and Chidi put themselves in charge of their own conspiracy. 
Balanced: Do the members of the ensemble balance each other out?
Whether this is a premise or episodic pilot, is there one point-of-view who needs this world explained (who may or may not be the hero)?
Yes, Eleanor
Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
Not really.  Everybody tells her.    There’s even a power point.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
Chidi is head, Michael is heart, Eleanor is gut.  (These will change over time)
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
Michael: Kindly gentleman: “Shall we?”  “Funnily enough…”
Chidi: Ethical hair-splitter “Technically…”
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Michael: Warm-hearted
Chidi: Supportive but exasperated
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Michael: Seemingly plain-stated solicitous to all questions. Doesn’t have to talk anybody into anything yet.
Chidi: Appeals to morals
Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she appears?
In this case, it’s the hero, Eleanor
PART 4: IS THE PILOT EPISODE A STRONG STAND-ALONE STORY AND GOOD TEMPLATE FOR THE ONGOING SERIES? (17/22)                                                                
Template: Does this match and/or establish the standard format of this type of series
Does the pilot have (or establish) the average length for its format?
22 minutes.
If this is intended for a form of commercial media, does the pilot have the right number of commercial breaks for its intended venue?
Yes, three breaks
If this is intended for commercial TV, does every act end on a cliffhanger or escalation, especially the middle one (and, if not intended for commercial TV, does it still have escalations happening in roughly the same places, simply for narrative purposes)?
1st act out: She’s invited out to see heaven. 2nd act out: “There’s been a big mistake, I’m not supposed to be here.” “Wait, what?”. 3rd act out: “I just have to go upstairs and steal a bunch of gold stuff.”  4th act out: “Eleanor, this is all happening because of you. “Ah, fork me.” 5th act out: “My soul is in your hands, soulmate.  What’s it gonna be?”  “Oh, stomachache.”
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
Yes, 24 hours will be common.
Do all of the pilot’s storylines intercut believably within that time frame?
There’s just one storyline.
If this is a premise pilot, is the basic premise established by the midpoint, leaving time for a foreshortened typical episode story in the second half?
No.  There’s a lot of set-up and they only establish the premise at the end. 
Pilot Story Fundamentals: Does the pilot episode have a strong story?
Does the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
Not really.  She doesn’t achieve any goals.   Her accomplishment is to find a co-conspirator
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
No.  The characters will grow very deep and rich over time, but the pilot is more about plot.  This is a downside of high-concept ideas. 
Is the pilot’s challenge something that is not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
Well, the reward is high, but she really doesn’t want to go straight.  She will reluctantly try to be a better person, but she really just wishes she could go to a “medium place.”
First Half: Is the problem established in a way that reflects human nature?
Does the hero start out with a short-term goal for this episode?
Fake it, mostly by staying quiet.
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
Well, the major change in the status quo happens before the episode begins.  The troubling situation comes when she sees video of Eleanor’s life shot from her POV, which confirms that she’s been falsely identified. 
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
Yes, she confesses to Chidi and asks for his help.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
He resists.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
She thinks it won’t be that hard.
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
She just realizes as a result of the party that it’ll be harder than she thought.  
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
She talks with Chidi about how hard it’ll be.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Not really.  Lots of plot in this episode.
Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
Yes, when the world starts falling apart.
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
Again, the shrimp and giraffes.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
Just at the end: Get coached by Chidi
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Yes.
After the climax, does either the hero, the point of view character or a guest star have a personal revelation and/or life change, possibly revealed through reversible behavior?
She decides to become a good person.
PART 5: IS EACH SCENE THE BEST IT CAN BE? (18/22)  Eleanor and Chidi react to the crisis
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
We just saw them freaking out.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Well, there’s an apocalypse going on outside, and there’s someone knocking on the door, so sort of. 
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Chidi is reluctant to have this conversation.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Not really.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Someone is knocking on the door.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
Very much so.
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
He is tortured by it. 
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We’re sympathetic to both, but ultimately on her side.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Very much so.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: Help me.  Suppressed: Admit that life isn’t black and white.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
She calls it out.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Yes.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
”My soul’s in your hands, soulmate.”
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
She keeps walking closer to him and pointing a finger in his face, but she never quite touches him. 
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
No.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
Well, it stops just before he commits to her plan, but we can tell he will. 
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Not really.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
What’s going on?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Will their plan work?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
We’re very afraid.  She’s afraid that the person at the door will see she’s wearing the wrong clothes.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
”What’s it gonna be?”
PART 6: IS THIS POWERFUL DIALOGUE? (11/13)
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Not yet.  Tahani and Jianyu/Jason are looked down on, so far.  It also doesn’t seem that Janet will have any depth yet.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.  Nobody can see what the others are going through.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Yes, Janet corrects Eleanor.  “I wasn’t that into him anyway.” “Yes, you were.”
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
Yes.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Yes.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the culturally-specific syntax of the characters (without necessarily attempting to replicate non-standard pronunciation)?
Not really with the main characters.  Michael is not associated with any one culture, Eleanor is sort of generically “white trash”, but not in a culturally specific way.  Chidi is African and speaking French which has been translated into English, so his language has been de-culturized.  In the pilot, only Tahani is culturally specific.  Later, Jason will be, brilliantly.
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
Well, Chidi very believably speaks like an ethics professor, and his profession will come to dominate the show.  
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Do ethics professors have tradecraft?
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Sure.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Sure.
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Sure.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Well, one of the characters is a professor, but Eleanor speaks very plainly.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Sort of, Eleanor thinks about her parents in hell.
PART 7: DOES THE PILOT MANAGE ITS TONE TO CREATE AND FULFILL AUDIENCE EXPECTATIONS? (6/8)
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
Nothing we’ve ever seen before. 
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
Yes, this is basically a show about what it feels like to be on Facebook, where everybody else seems like a perfect person and you feel like a loser-creep compared to them. 
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
Quirky, light, bright, surreal
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
Just one storyline.
Framing: Does the pilot set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are there framing devices (flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to set the mood, pose a dramatic question, and/or pose ongoing questions?
No, we jump right in. 
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the pilot? 
“Will she be found out?”
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
We get little hints that Eleanor isn’t who she appears to be (“You were buying a bottle of Lonely Gal Margarita Mix for One”) and little threats that this place can turn threatening.
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
Not definitively, but now she has a plan for never being found out.
PART 8: DOES THE PILOT CREATE A MEANINGFUL ONGOING THEME? (12/14)         
Pervasive: Is the theme interwoven into many aspects of the show?
Does the ensemble as a whole have a unique philosophy about how to fill their role (and competition from an allied force with a different philosophy)?
They have their own neighborhood in heaven, where Michael is trying something different than the other neighborhoods.
Does the pilot have a statement of philosophy and/or theme, usually either at the beginning or ¾ of the way in. (Sometimes this will be the ensemble’s statement of philosophy, sometimes this merely be the implied theme of the series itself.)
Sort of: “There should be a medium place.”  Eventually, she will win over many people on the show to this point of view.   
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Be yourself or be a better person?
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Do you help your soulmate even though you know it’s ethically wrong?
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
There’s just one storyline
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
The sizes of the houses, etc.
Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
Very much so.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series’ set-up reflect the way the world works?
Life is unfair.
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
It’s too weird to say.
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
Sort of.  Our hero is not a member of the moral 1%, but feels like she is entitled to their reward, not eternal torment. 
Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Yes.
Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?
Strange consequences, but real.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the pilot episode’s story, forcing the audience to do that?
Yes, it ends hastily.
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
No, it does seem resolvable: It’s better (but harder) to become better than to be yourself.  The original premise only lasted 13 episodes because it was not irresolvable.  
Total Score: 105/128